Calming the Storm Complementary Therapies Offer Peace of Mind to Cancer Sufferers

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine recently issued a list of 16 facts about cancer — how cancerous cells form and attack the body, how radiation and chemotherapy work, what types of foods feed or fight the cancer, and so on.

One of those bits of information might seem, well, a bit more touchy-feely than the rest:

“Cancer is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit,” it reads. “A proactive and positive spirit will help the cancer warrior be a survivor. Anger, unforgiveness, and bitterness put the body into a stressful and acidic environment. Learn to have a loving and forgiving spirit. Learn to relax and enjoy life.”

Massage, anyone?

With many of the world’s leading cancer experts speaking freely about the value of one’s frame of mind in battling cancer, it’s no surprise that hospitals and other health care providers are increasingly offering complementary therapies to help patients relax, heal, and strengthen their minds.

“Many places are using complementary therapies, or what they call integrative medicine, although we don’t have many here yet,” said Yvonne Pola, director of the Sr. Caritas Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center. She noted that Mercy offers Reiki therapeutic touch to cancer patients and is hoping to offer therapeutic massage soon. “Some cancer centers are doing relaxation and hypnosis, and some are doing aromatherapy. Acupunc-ture is also high on the list.”

Such therapies are definitely benefits to patients, she noted, considering how cancer is a fight that requires the mind to be engaged as well as the body.

“It’s a whole healing of the mind, a healing mindfulness, and that’s what we’re aiming for,” Pola said. “It’s a holistic approach to looking at a patient beyond the disease. Medicine is good, and great equipment is wonderful, but if we don’t touch people in their soul, in the core of their being, healing is not going to take place as well.”

Healing Touches

Pola said the general public has been more accepting of complementary therapies — such as Reiki, yoga, acupuncture, and meditation — than the health care establishment, but that might be changing, if only because of market demand.

“A lot of research is pointing in the direction of mindfulness and mind-body integration, but we have not done a good job of that in cancer care until very recently,” Pola said. “A lot of this is very Eastern medicine-based, and people were very skeptical of that for many years.”

Part of the disconnect, she explained, is the tendency of Western medicine to be driven by concrete, evidence-based outcomes. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she said, “but when you look at Eastern cultures, they have a different way of looking at things, much more of an integrative process.”

As those cultures have become more open to the world, more practitioners are training overseas and being exposed to such modalities, and they’re slowly being integrated into disease management in the U.S. “People are jumping on the bandwagon, and we’re seeing more of that.”

Indeed, the Baystate Regional Cancer Program offers a host of complementary modalities for patients, including hypnosis, healing touch, massage therapy, Reiki, and yoga.

For one thing, two registered nurses work in the chemotherapy infusion suite, providing Reiki and massage therapy to patients before, during, and after the procedure.

“We try to relax patients, to get them in a calmer state,” said Cathy Rousseau, director of Cancer Services. “It works better medically when they’re more relaxed; just getting an IV in someone who’s nervous and jittery can be difficult. So the whole goal is to provide an opportunity for enhanced relaxation during a stressful time — particularly when they’re first starting on this regimen that’s been ordered for them by a physician.”

Baystate also has social workers who conduct hypnotherapy, guided meditation, and a newly launched program in art therapy for patients at various stages of cancer treatment — again, to provide opportunities for people to relax and de-stress at what is likely the most stressful time of their lives.

“We also have a bevy of support groups, and we partner with Cancer Connection and Cancer House of Hope, two outside organizations, and refer patients to them to get the support that we can’t offer,” Rousseau said. “We look at every avenue and ask how can we support them while they’re in our cancer program. It’s a very patient-focused program.”

Meanwhile, the Center for Comple-mentary Therapies at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton is currently using a grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to provide complementary services — including acupuncture, aromatherapy, healing music, healing touch, Reiki, self-hypnosis, and therapeutic massage — to women with breast cancer.

“This is a good way of looking at health care as multidimensional, and not just treatment,” Bridget Griffin Thompson, coordinator of the center, told The Healthcare News earlier this year. “It’s complementary; it doesn’t replace traditional medicine, but goes alongside what they’re already getting in their medical visits.

“It’s fabulous to see how people have responded to this,” she added. “It gives them a sense of wholeness and helps them heal themselves and take care of themselves.”

Meeting a Demand

Effective cancer care, Pola said, “is more than having great equipment and great doctors. Once patients really start clamoring for these things, our system will move in that direction, toward a comprehensive complementary-therapy program, not just something hit-or-miss.

“We’re starting small,” she added, “but we’ll hopefully start to do more. It’s patient-driven.”

And if that drive eventually equips those so-called ‘cancer warriors’ with more tools to survive and thrive, then the entire health care establishment will breathe a little easier.